By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
There are more than 3 million pet rabbits in the U.S., according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA),1 and although they're decidedly different from the most popular pets — dogs and cats — they require a similar level of care, including attention to their oral and vision health.
Your rabbit needs an annual wellness exam with an exotic veterinarian experienced with rabbits. He or she will check your rabbit's teeth and eyes then, but you should also keep a watch out for potential problems during the rest of the year. As prey animals, rabbits are masters at disguising signs of pain or illness, so a dental or eye problem may not be readily apparent, even if one exists.
Proper Oral Health for Rabbits
Dental health is important for all animals, but while dogs and cats can survive without their teeth (not that this is recommended), rabbits cannot. Rabbits have hypsondontal teeth, which means they grow continuously, explaining why they're avid chewers.
A fresh source of hay is essential for rabbits, not only because of the beneficial fiber it contains but also because it helps wear down their teeth. Your rabbit should, in fact, primarily eat grass, hay and vegetables such as celery, lettuce, Bok choy and carrot tops (sparingly).
If you notice something in common, it's that these foods require serious chewing and grinding to consume, which is one of the things rabbits do best. Dr. Krista Keller, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana told the Herald Review, "Rabbits' dental anatomy is designed to allow them to eat grass, weeds, and hay. Their fibrous diet grinds down their teeth, so rabbits need teeth that continue to grow throughout their entire life."2
Problems arise when rabbits' teeth grow too long or in the wrong direction, the latter of which is more common in dwarf and lop-eared breeds. Their shortened faces may cause crowding of their teeth, causing them to grow abnormally, Keller said. In the case of rabbits' teeth growing too long, this is usually due to a poor diet, including not enough fibrous food.
Ideally, your rabbit should eat as much grass hay as she likes, along with leafy greens and herbs, including cilantro, dill, kale (sparingly), broccoli leaves, mustard and collard and dandelion greens. Fresh pellets are acceptable as a supplement for rabbits' diet, especially if they're low in protein and high in fiber, but processed pellets should not be fed as a sole food source.
You should also avoid feeding your adult rabbit alfalfa, which is too high in protein and sugar. As for what to look for as a sign of dental problems in rabbits, the Herald Review noted:3
"Rabbits in pain may be less interested in food or may not eat at all. They may also be picky about their food and select softer options (pellets, produce) that are more comfortable to chew. Their fecal balls may be small, the rabbits may be less active, and infections may be likely to develop in the mouth and throughout the body."
If you notice these signs, visit your veterinarian right away. If there's a problem, a tooth extraction, tooth trimming or pain management may be necessary. For some rabbits, regular tooth trimming may be necessary, but you can help prevent overgrown teeth using the dietary strategies mentioned as well as by providing proper nontoxic chew toys, such as untreated wood blocks, rings made of willow wood or cardboard.
Caring for Your Rabbit's Eye Health
Rabbits have large eyes; it's part of what makes them so irresistibly cute. However, their large size, coupled with their placement on either side of their head, makes them prone to injury. It's common for rabbits to get irritants or other foreign objects (such as a piece of hay or bedding) stuck in their eyes.
This can be flushed out with an eye washing solution, but if you're unsure how to do this safely, or whether an irritant is the problem, you should have your exotic vet take care of this. Other relatively common eye problems in rabbits include:4
- Eye abcesses, which may occur if the eye is infected or punctured. A bump may form under your rabbit's eye due to the abcess and will need to be treated by your vet.
- Eye ulcers, which can occur if an irritant or trauma damages the cornea, leading to an ulcer or hole. Signs of an eye ulcer in rabbits include not wanting to open the eye or pawing at the eye because it's painful.
- Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, in rabbits is usually caused by bacteria, resulting in inflammation to the pink area surrounding the eye (the conjunctivitis).
If your rabbit has milky or clear discharge coming from her eye, the problem could be a plugged nasolacrimal duct, a tube that drains tears from the eye to the nose. Modesto, California veterinarian Jeff Kahler told The Modesto Bee:5
"If this duct becomes occluded, either partially or completely, the tears that are normally drained into the nose have nowhere else to go other than to drain from the eye socket. If left plugged for some period of time, a condition known as [dacryocystitis] can develop. This involves infection with bacteria within the nasolacrimal duct. These rabbits will have discharge from the eye, often milky."
In any event, any sign of trouble in your rabbit's eyes is worthy of a trip to your vet to get it checked out. Because exotic vets that care for rabbits can be few and far between, it's a good idea to locate one before you decide on a rabbit for a pet.